7 October 2017

Rosalba Carriera - portrait painter

Venetian artist specialised in miniatures

Rosalba Carriera: shown painting her sister in a self-portrait housed at the Uffizi in Florence
Rosalba Carriera: shown painting her sister in
a self-portrait housed at the Uffizi in Florence
One of the most successful women painters in the history of art, Rosalba Carriera is thought to have been born on this day in 1675 in Venice.

A pioneer of the Rococo style, she worked in pastel colours and was best known for her portraits. Her work was so admired that at her peak she had an almost constant stream of commissions from notable visitors to Venice, and from diplomats and nobility in the courts of other countries, principally France and Austria.

Born into a middle-class background, she was able to live a relatively comfortable life, although she would outlive her family, including her two sisters, and had gone blind by the time she died, at the age of 84.

Nowadays, Carriera’s portraits are as highly sought after as they were in the 18th century, with prices in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds realised when examples come up for auction.

One of the finest such examples, a portrait of the Irish politician Gustavus Hamilton, who was a colonel in the regiment of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, fetched £421,250 at Christie’s in 2008.

The daughter of a clerk and a lacemaker, Carriera is said to have learned lacemaking from her mother but as the lace industry declined she began decorating snuff boxes with miniature portraits, to be sold to tourists.

Carriera's portrait of Gustavus Hamilton, the Irish politician, sold for £421,250 at Christie's
Carriera's portrait of Gustavus Hamilton, the
Irish politician, sold for £421,250 at Christie's
She was one of the first miniaturists to paint on thin pieces of ivory rather than vellum.

Her talent was soon recognised, bringing her admission to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1704. She moved from snuff boxes to more conventional portrait painting.

Carriera’s portraits were highly sophisticated, appealing to the refined tastes of nobility in particular, who were impressed with the way in which her attention to detail conveyed the image of wealth and luxury.

She placed her subjects almost always in a bust-length pose, with the body turned slightly away and the face looking towards the viewer, with the features accurately captured. Her ability to use her paints to create realistic representations of different textures and materials - gold braid, lace, furs – as well as jewels, hair and skin, set her apart.

Although she veered away from idealising her subjects, inevitably she presented them in a flattering light. By contrast, her self-portraits were sometimes starkly unflattering, emphasising what she considered to her poorer features, exaggerating the size of her nose, for example.  Her best-known self-portrait is one she contributed to the Medici collection of self-portraits at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, in which she portrays herself holding a portrait of her sister, Giovanna, to whom she was devoted.

Her early ‘celebrity’ subjects, whom she painted while they were visiting Venice, included Maximilian II of Bavaria and Frederick IV of Denmark.

Carriera's portrait of the young Louis XV
Carriera's portrait of the young Louis XV
August the Strong of Saxony, who was also King of Poland and sat for her in 1713, became one of her biggest patrons, inviting her to his court and acquiring more than 150 of her works.

Carriera spent between a year and 18 months in Paris, after the collector and financier Pierre Crozat had encouraged her to go.

She arrived with her family in March 1720 and became the idol of the French capital.  She painted every member of the French royal family, including the young Louis XV, and was granted honorary membership of the French Royal Academy.

After returning to Venice, where she had a home on the Grand Canal, she was invited to Vienna, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI became her patron.

Carriera was very close to her sisters, Angela and Giovanna, to whom she passed on her skill.  Giovanna helped her fulfil her numerous commissions in Paris, for example.

When Giovanna died in 1738, she was said to have become lonely and deeply depressed, her state of mind not helped by failing eyesight.  She underwent surgery twice in the hope of saving her sight from cataracts, but the operations were not successful.

Carriera spent the last few years of her life living in relative seclusion in a house in the Dorsoduro area of Venice.

The Ca' Biondetti on the Grand Canal was Carriera's home for many years
The Ca' Biondetti on the Grand Canal was Carriera's
home for many years
Travel tip:

Rosalba Carriera lived for many years in the Ca’ Biondetti, a private house on the Grand Canal in Venice, situated between the beautifully ornate Palazzo Mula Morosini and Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the 18th century palace best known for being the home of the Peggy Guggenheim collection.

The magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
The magnificent Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
Travel tip:

Dorsoduro is the quarter of Venice just across the Grand Canal near where it emerges into the lagoon, accessed from San Marco via the Accademia Bridge. Much less crowded than San Marco, it nonetheless has much to recommend it, including the Peggy Guggenheim collection, the Gallerie dell’ Accademia and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, which itself houses no fewer than 12 works by Titian.  There are also a host of small bars serving a wonderful variety of the Venetian bar snacks known as cicchetti.

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